December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

The Hidden Jesus

In the neighborhoods around my house, most people don’t go all out with the Christmas decorations.  Along my street many of the houses have a wreath and maybe some candles in the windows, or a few strings of white lights wrapped around the evergreen shrubs.  With the snow on the branches and the lights sparkling, it is always quite beautiful.  And very tasteful and elegant – not much in the way of reindeer balancing on pitched roofs or windows outlined in multi-colored running lights. People don’t drive down our street to look at over-the-top Christmas decorations!

There is one house on my street, though, that did not get the memo!  The little front yard is crammed with just about every plastic figure you can imagine.  There is a seesaw with two penguins on it, going up and down, next to a little polar bear. There is an inflatable snow globe with things going around inside.  There are reindeer and a sleigh.  There is an illuminated plastic nativity scene, with a giant blow-up Santa and a snowman looming over Mary and Joseph and the Baby, and the wise men bear their gifts lined up by the sidewalk, next to a row of lighted candy canes.

Some people, I suppose, might find this display on the tacky side.  And some people might think it is inappropriate to plop the baby Jesus down in the midst of the penguins and the elves and the Santa Claus.  (And what do penguins have to do with Christmas anyway?  Don’t they live at the South Pole?)  And the baby who should be at the heart of it all is almost hidden, barely noticeable, surrounded as he is by all those other figures and decorations that have nothing to do with the story of Christmas – at least the one recorded in the Bible.

I’ve decided, though, that this display is just right.  After all, that is just how Jesus came to us.  He was plopped down into the world with all kinds of inappropriate things going on around him.  Most of what was happening in and around Bethlehem had nothing to do with God’s reign – it was all about Caesar’s reign. And there was nothing tasteful and elegant about his birth.  He was conceived outside of wedlock; he was born in a stable full of mess and manure; he was visited by the poorest of the poor, the shepherds. 

Jesus was just one of many, another child born in a difficult situation to a young woman, a child destined to grow up and live a life of poverty.  Who in the world would pay attention to a poor baby, born of poor parents, in a poor country?  There was no reason this birth should have been noticed at all, let alone become a story told over and over again in times and places very far removed from that stable, including here.

It makes me wonder:  Why would God choose to be revealed in such a hidden way?  Wouldn’t it be better if God were easier to recognize?  After all, we wouldn’t be likely to miss God if God came to us as a voice from a burning bush, would we?  Or as God did to the people standing on the banks of the Red Sea waiting for the waters to part?  Or in fire and smoke and sacred words on a holy mountain?  But even those people, God’s chosen ones, often missed God’s presence.  Even in the promised land, they continued to wait and hope for God to be revealed, for God to come and rescue them again, to give them safety and freedom.  They understood through the prophets that God would send a savior, the Messiah. In a time of war and upheaval, the saving word of God that came through Isaiah to the people must have seemed strange news:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” 

They were hoping for a mighty army, and instead they got a baby.  They were hoping for military victory and instead they were promised peace, a peace that would need the same kind of care and tending that a newborn needs. 

And all that was long ago, and where is that promise of peace now?  If this Child has been born – and we do believe that -- then why isn’t there endless peace now?  Why is the world still filled with injustice?  Where is righteousness?  Where is the child who will save us?

One year and ten days ago near where I live in Connecticut, twenty boys and girls and seven women were murdered by a young man – almost a child himself and certainly a lost and troubled soul.  In the aftermath of this tragedy, it has sometimes been hard to understand where God is, to know the presence of the savior.  It has seemed sometimes that evil and destruction might win out.  But then God speaks in the words of the mother of Ana Grace, one of the children who was killed, and she recalls setting up a table with candles to light for those who died that day, and she says: 

"Do we have a table with 26 candles (one for each of the children and teachers), or do we have a table with 28?  We put 28, because at the end of the day, it's a gesture of the compassion that we need to move forward."

And so the mother of a murdered child lights a candle for the murderer and his mother.  And suddenly, in words that are both simple and stunning, the hidden Jesus is revealed.  God is present.  And the power of peace overcomes everything else. The families of the women and children who were killed at Sandy Hook have asked that people honor the memory of their precious ones by paying it forward – by doing something kind and compassionate and generous and loving for someone else.  It is a lesson that we have to learn over and over again, this lesson in compassion.  It is a lesson that the memories of those precious children of Newtown teach us. It is a lesson that the precious child of Bethlehem teaches us:  “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Last year, we had a huge snow after Christmas – more than four feet in some places.  The Christmas display in my neighbor’s yard was buried under the white stuff.  Only the top of the big Santa and the crowns of the wise men were visible.  As the weather softened in the weeks after the snow, bits and pieces of other figures emerged.  But the Baby, low and small, was the last to be uncovered.   It took a big thaw to reveal the hidden Jesus who had been there all along.  I think that is a kind of parable for us.  There is a hidden Jesus always present, but the storms of life have piled up so much stuff that we no longer notice him.  There is a hidden Jesus in us, but we have to thaw out our frozen hearts, let our busyness and sinfulness and distraction melt away, in order for him to be revealed. He is here all along. And the way of life he intends for us – the time of endless peace and justice and righteousness – is present now, also waiting to be revealed. He himself reminded us this when he said: "The kingdom of heaven is within you."

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus – with bright lights and candy canes or elegant wreaths and candles, with gifts for those we love or random acts of kindness for total strangers, with treasured manger scenes or plastic ones displayed in the yard.  And may our celebrations continue through the days and weeks and years to come, so we come to reveal with our own lives the hidden Jesus who is in our midst.  Let us be reminded that Christ is still present in our less-than-perfect world, amidst the tacky displays of our lives, in the places where we least expect it.  Christ is present!

© Martha C. Highsmith